Reconciling Israel's Security with Palestinian Statehood

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email: Web: www.alonben-meir.com 05.10.2010

The two interdependent issues which hover over every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are satisfying Israel's national security requirements while meeting the Palestinian demand to end the Israeli occupation. Whereas the Palestinians must understand that unless Israel feels secure, there will be no independent Palestinian state, similarly, Israel must recognize that a two-state solution must mean an end to Israeli occupation in any form. To achieve these two objectives, both sides must carefully consider not only each other's requirements, but also demonstrate sensitivity to each other's mindset, which has been ingrained for decades and continues to fuel their conflicting positions.

Even a cursory review of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggests that Israel has legitimate national security concerns that must be alleviated in order to achieve a negotiated agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Despite the fact that there are still several Palestinian groups who openly and consistently seek Israel's destruction, and however arguable Israel's linkage between its national security and its continued occupation, one thing remains indisputable: Israel's withdrawal from a part of the territories in the past did not create the building blocks for peace. Instead, the evacuated territories were used as a staging ground for further violent attacks against Israel. The withdrawal from parts of the West Bank in the late 1990s did not prevent the second Intifada; the pull-out from Southern Lebanon in 2000 did not stop the violent exchanges with Hezbollah, which led to the 2006 war; and the evacuation of Gaza in 2005 created a launching pad for indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas and others, subsequently leading to Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Instead of utilizing the partial withdrawals as the basis for improved relations to encourage further Israeli withdrawals and an end to the occupation, the Palestinians mistakenly viewed the Israeli pullouts as a reaction to continued Palestinian violence. The Israelis' painful retaliations against the Palestinians' incessant violent provocations finally convinced the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank that continued violence against Israel is self-destructive. As a result, the PA determined to build the infrastructure of a Palestinian state (establishing the 'Fayyad Plan') and advance negotiations, rather than militant resistance.

Because of past experiences and the mindset that evolved from these experiences, Israelis are extremely skeptical about the Palestinians' true intentions to seek a durable peace. For these reasons, Israel will insist that four major security concerns are addressed prior to any significant withdrawal from the West Bank: a) that the PA is able to independently prevent the takeover of the territories by terrorist groups and act decisively against violent provocations, b) that there will be no smuggling of weapons, especially rockets to the West Bank which could pose an unacceptable security risk to Israel's urban centers, c) that the PA never enter into a military alliance with a foreign nation, and finally, d) that the newly born Palestinian state be demilitarized, with the exception of robust internal security forces. Israel's intelligence and defense establishments strongly believe that these issues can only be addressed by maintaining a significant residual Israeli force along the Jordanian border, because the PA is not ready, as yet, to meet its border security requirements. Such forces, Israel argues, will not only deal effectively with the country's security concerns, but will also insure the sustainability of the Palestinian Authority as it will deter both internal and external elements from undermining peace.

The Palestinians reject the Israeli demand to keep its forces on the ground in the Jordan Valley, maintaining that such a residual presence on Palestinian territory would amount to a continuation of the occupation. The PA further argues that keeping Israeli troops behind, even without the daily encroachment on Palestinian lives, would provoke tremendous resistance and provide Palestinian groups opposed to any agreement with Israel the munitions they need to undermine peace, including violent attacks. Moreover, forty-four years of Palestinian yearning to end the occupation has created a mindset that diametrically rejects not only continued presence of any Israeli soldiers, but also the symbols of occupation and its humiliating effect on their national dignity and pride. The Palestinians want to feel that they have finally won their independence, albeit not through militant resistance, but certainly without a shade of servitude. In this regard, they would rather maintain their current precarious situation than accede to Israel's demands, which, from their perspective, would be tantamount to surrendering their national aspirations for an independent Palestinian state.

To resolve their conflicting positions, both sides must carefully consider each other's core requirements for peace as well the other's national psychological disposition. There are four security measures that can be put in place with the help of the international community that would alleviate Israel's security concerns without leaving a residual force in the Jordan Valley.

First, although Israel is skeptical of multi-national forces intended to safeguard its security interests (the ineffectiveness of the international peace-keeping forces in Lebanon offer a glaring example), depending on the composition and the mandate of such a force, a multinational effort could potentially be effective. A force stationed along the Israel-Jordan border that includes military personnel from several leading Arab States, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan-as each has vested interest in keeping the peace-in addition to a contingency of peace keepers from some NATO member states under US command, could be extraordinarily effective and essential. A robust force with a mandate to take action to stop the infiltration of terrorists and the smuggling of weapons could satisfy in part Israel's security concerns, provided it is further augmented by other security provisions.

Second, although the PA has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to keep the peace during the past two years and prevent violent attacks against Israel, the Palestinians should agree to a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces over a period of three to four years. During this period of time, the Palestinians' internal security forces should be more than tripled to ensure an orderly takeover of all security responsibilities from Israel as they withdraw from areas B and eventually C as well, and allow Israel to prepare for relocating many settlers. Jordan, with American financial support, has done an impressive job in training the Palestinian security forces and could use this time to expand the effort to a much larger scale. Through this transitional period and beyond, the PA should recognize that the burden of proof-maintaining a non-violent atmosphere-falls squarely on its shoulders. They must know that Palestinians' independence depends on Israel's national security, and a repeat of the second Intifada or the firing of rockets at Israel's densely populated areas following a new Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be a kiss of death for the hope for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Third, the Palestinian state must remain demilitarized, not only to satisfy Israel's requirements but also to conserve financial resources to enable investments in the infrastructure of the state, thereby increasing the vested interests in maintaining peace. There are 17 countries in the world who have virtually no armies and need not have one because they are simply not threatened by their neighbors and do not want to invest in military hardware to no avail. Similarly, the new Palestinian state will not be threatened by any of its neighbors; Jordan, Israel or Egypt, and even if the Palestinians invest billions of dollars to built a military machine, it would never be in a position to challenge Israel militarily or even deter it should Israel feel threatened by the Palestinian state.

Finally, since Gaza must be a part of the equation, the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria in particular, should lean heavily on Hamas to join the peace process and accept the stationing of similar forces in Gaza in exchange for lifting the Israeli blockade completely. Whereas Israel could reach a peace agreement with the PA without Hamas, it would be extremely difficult to sustain it without, at a minimum, Hamas' acquiescence. Thus, from a security perspective, not withstanding Israel's rejection of Hamas as a terrorist organization, ignoring it will continue to pose security problems for Israel. For this reason Syria will be needed to support the peace process, and in order to induce Damascus to use its leverage on Hamas, it must be given a reason to believe that Israel is seeking a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that will include Syria.

The Palestinians, including Hamas, must accept the fact that the prospect of establishing a state of their own is intertwined with Israel's national security. Meanwhile, Israel must drop the illusion that it can insure its national security while maintaining even a semblance of the occupation. Neither side can realize what they want unless they accept this basic bitter-sweet reality.

*A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on October 1st, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=189630

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